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TALKING TO MYSELF: 23 December 2012 I spotted Santa Claus sitting in a large easy chair as soon as I entered our church’s back foyer. It doubles as a fellowship hall on Sundays between services, and it’s a popular spot where talk flows along with the hot coffee.
Although he was disguised in a white shirt and tie and a khaki windbreaker, I knew who he was. His long white beard gave him away. “Santa Claus!” I called out, making my way toward him through the crowd of Methodists wolfing down doughnuts. He was chatting with one of the homeless men who attend services at our downtown Lexington church. Interrupting them, I blurted out, “Do you remember me? Georgia Stamper? We knew each other in Ashland when I lived there. How wonderful to run into you here!”
He has family in Lexington, he said, as he looked up at me with his blue eyes, a little milky now with age. Then he took my outstretched hand in both of his. I was startled that his felt so boney. Didn’t he used to be fleshier?
“I brought my daughters to visit you every year at Hills Department Store. That would have been in the late 1970s. I never bothered taking them to any of those imposters from central casting. They only talked to you.”
He smiled and nodded as though he did recall my little girls, mothers now themselves.
I burbled on as people will do with the very old so that Santa wouldn’t have to talk if he didn’t want to, if he were too tired, if he didn’t remember me. “My oldest grandson is in boy scouts, now, for almost a year, and it’s been a life changing experience for him.” Not many people know that Santa has been in scouting almost as long as it has existed. Once, on Scout Sunday back in Ashland, I heard him talk about meeting Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of the scouting movement, at one of the early World Scout Jamborees.
“That’s fine news about your grandson,” he said in a quiet voice. I believed he meant it, as if he were as concerned about the boy’s well-being as I am.
Then, abruptly returning to our earlier subject, he said, “Those years at Hills were good ones. I’d just retired from forty years on the railroad and was looking for a way to be useful. I went to every store in Ashland and Russell, all the big places like Sears and J. C. Penney and Parsons, but the only one that would give me the time of day was Hills. One incident -- I’ve never forgotten.”
He paused and stroked his beard as if considering how best to tell me this story. I wondered what could be so unusual that it would hang in Santa’s memory for decades. Remembering the bizarre incidents in David Sedaris’ SantaLand Diaries, I prepared myself for something funny.
“A little girl came to see me one day. She could have been as old as nine, a tall child on the chunky side, but I suspect she was large for her age because she had the manner of a child about six.” Santa shuffled the cane propped against his knee and looked away from me as though he were clarifying her image in his mind. After a few moments he looked back at me and went on.
“One half of her face was the most beautiful chocolate color I’ve ever seen. The rich brown color ran on a diagonal line from her upper left hairline, across her nose, and ended on her lower right jaw line.” Santa sliced his face into two imaginary triangles with his hand so that I would understand.
“But the opposite half of her face, following the same diagonal slant, was splotched with many colors, white, purple, blue, and it was bumpy with growths.” In a quiet way, Santa also swept his hand over this triangle of his face to help me visualize what he had seen.
“We chatted a few minutes about what she wanted for Christmas. And then, as I did for every child who came to talk with me, I kissed her on the cheek and gave her a peppermint candy cane. Then I lifted her off my lap, and she took off running. I was stationed in the rear of the store in a wide center aisle that allowed me to see all the way to the front entrance. And so I could see her running down that long aisle, nearly the length of a football field, to where her family stood near the front of the store, and I could hear her shouting to them as she ran. ‘Santa Claus kissed me on the cheek! He kissed me on the cheek!’ she yelled out to them, over and over and over.”
Santa stopped speaking, and stared at something I could not see. We sat in silence as others bustled past us, in a hurry now to finish their coffee and settle themselves in the large sanctuary of our church for the eleven o’clock service. Minutes passed. I reached for his hand and squeezed it gently to say good-bye. The old man acknowledged my leaving with only the slightest nod of his head.
I confess that I didn’t hear the choir sing that morning or anything the minister said. I sat in my padded pew thinking about the little girl with the Joker face and wondering who she might be now, over thirty years later.
This then is my message to you, gentle reader, by way of Santa Claus and with words borrowed from the poet Emily Dickinson:
If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain.
In Memory of George Hendricks (1916 - 2012) and the Hills Department Store in Russell-Ashland, Kentucky
©COPYRIGHT GEORGIA GREEN STAMPER
excerpt from Butter in the Morning